Regime moving chess pieces into place

Regime moving chess pieces into place

analysis: Cabinet goes poaching for talent as poll nears

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha says he needs a well-connected political veteran to help him learn more about politics in the lead-up to elections.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha says he needs a well-connected political veteran to help him learn more about politics in the lead-up to elections.

The regime's political intentions are becoming clearer after it appointed two brothers from the Khunpleum clan as officials in what is seen an attempt to round up talent to give it more options in terms of fielding prime ministerial candidates in the general election expected in February.

The cabinet on Tuesday appointed Sonthaya Khunpleum, former tourism and sports minister, as an adviser on political affairs to the prime minister and named his younger brother Itthiphol an assistant to the new tourism and sports minister.

Political observers believe the regime is plotting to snatch as many veteran politicians as possible ahead of the poll.

The latest hires come amid reports that Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak is forming a new party and would support Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as premier should he bid to remain in politics.

The Khunpleum family, led led by Somchai Khunpleum, also known as Kamnan Poh, has considerable influence in the eastern province of Chon Buri.

Sonthaya (left) and Itthiphol Khunpleum: Political hires

Mr Sonthaya, 55, is the leader of the Palang Chon Party and the eldest son of Kamnan Poh, and Mr Itthiphol, 45, a former Pattaya mayor, is the fourth child of Mr Somchai, who was freed from jail last Dec 14 after he was deemed to have met special criteria for an early release.

He was jailed for hiring a hitman to kill a political rival.

Gen Prayut admitted Tuesday he needs a well-connected political veteran to help him learn more about politics as the country heads toward the election.

"I want to hear what they have to say. I need to have these politicians around me for a better understanding of things," he said.

"But that doesn't mean they are here for my own personal interest. We're heading there [elections] and I need people who can advise me," he added. "I don't know how politics works, so I should learn."

According to the prime minister, the appointments were proposed by the tourism minister and a deputy prime minister with his approval before the move was tabled for cabinet consideration.

Gen Prayut said he has no loathing for politicians and the appointments are based on suitability.

However, he said he has no idea if Mr Sonthaya would step down as the leader of the Phalang Chon Party and urged the public not to rush their judgements.

Asked if this would reflect the face of a future government, he said: "What government?"

A source in the Pheu Thai Party said the move is an indication that Gen Prayut does not want to be an "outsider" prime minister.

It suggests Gen Prayut wants to be on the prime minister nominee list and aims to win support from politicians, according to the source.

Meanwhile, the Pheu Thai Party is said to be fighting back to keep its allies and its heavyweights. Party bigwigs will play a round of golf today with Sasomsap family members, who have influence in Nakhon Pathom.

There are about 20 of them including Somchai Wongsawat, Chousak Sirinil, and Chaikasem Nitisiri. The golf course of their choice is in Nakhon Pathom and is owned by the Sasomsap family.

Political observers believe it is more than a round of golf because the regime is reportedly ready to hijack the faction from the former ruling party. Moreover, members of the Sasomsap family have yet to confirm their party membership status.

Acting Pheu Thai secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai played down the gathering, saying it is limited to just a game of golf and the party members usually play twice a month. He said they have played on almost every golf course in Bangkok.

"They have until the end of this month to confirm their party membership status. We are adults and we make our own decisions," he said. A party source, however, admitted the golf round is the party's attempt to show a strong relationship between the party and the faction.

The departure of the Sasomsap family has had little or no impact on Pheu Thai as it commands about 10 seats and the party has replacements, the source said.

The regime's strategy is affecting the Democrat Party, which has parted ways with Sakoltee Phattiyakul.

The former Bangkok MP quit last week to become a deputy governor for Bangkok amid rumours he is being eyed by Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak to build up the latter's political base.

Democrat Party deputy leader Nipit Intarasombat described the strategy as "fishing in your neighbour's pond", saying it did not come as a surprise.

The easiest way to build up a party is to snatch politicians from other parties, he said.

According to Mr Nipit, he expects the regime to intensify its strategy as elections draw near and parties will have to be prepared.

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